In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys the once-popular but now largely forgotten detective stories of Ernest Bramah
The name Ernest Bramah may be largely forgotten now, but he created a detective whose popularity rivalled that of Sherlock Holmes (at least so it is rather improbably claimed). Bramah (1868-1942) created Max Carrados, a popular sleuth whose adventures appeared in The Strand magazine, which also published Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. But there is one important difference between Max Carrados and Sherlock Holmes: Carrados is blind.
The complete adventures of Max Carrados, a blind detective who can nevertheless solve crimes thanks to his extraordinary skills at reading things with his fingers and paying attention to the sounds that other people overlook, have recently been reprinted as The Eyes of Max Carrados (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural). Carrados first appeared in 1914 and over the next decade his short stories had many readers in Britain gripped. They still stand up well now. George Orwell was also a fan, claiming that, along with R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, the Max Carrados stories are the only detective stories since Edgar Allan Poe that are worth rereading.
This does not, of course, mean that Carrados is the equal of Holmes as a fictional creation. Who can rival Sherlock Holmes as a ‘magnetic’ character whose every foible as well as flourish is of profound fascination to readers? Carrados pales by comparison. Yet there are far paler imitations of Conan Doyle’s great detective out there, such as Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewitt (himself by no means a bad character) or Dr John Dollar, the first criminal psychologist in fiction, created by Conan Doyle’s own brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung (also by no means a dull creation).
What makes Max Carrados so distinctive, of course, is his lack of sight. Of all his senses, the one that Sherlock Holmes makes the most use of is his sight: his eagle eyes miss nothing. He may have chastised Dr Watson, in an early story, for seeing but not observing, but he needed to see in order to observe. The visible world is not available to Carrados, who instead relies on his other senses, such as touch and hearing, to supply the deficit. Bramah was probably challenged about Carrados’ superhuman abilities with his fingertips (used to read the print of newspapers) and ears (which can detect the faintest sound), for he prefaced the second volume of Max Carrados stories with an account of some real-life stories about the extraordinary feats of such famous sightless people as Helen Keller. Carrados’ remarkable sensory abilities don’t strike me as a barrier to enjoyment in these stories: after all, Sherlock Holmes is unerringly right in his deductions in Conan Doyle’s stories, which strains credulity – indeed, technically, they aren’t even ‘deductions’ but ‘abductions’, and abductions aren’t guaranteed to be always correct. But with Sherlock Holmes, they are. We’re prepared to suspend disbelief, however.
Like some of Sherlock Holmes’s later adventures, the Max Carrados stories sometimes flirt with the supernatural, drawing on the Edwardian vogue for the ambiguous ghost story. In ‘The Ghost of Massingham Mansions’, Carrados investigates the ghostly goings-on at a block of flats: the gas keeps coming on, and the taps seem to turn themselves on at random. Probing into the mystery, the detective discovers that the flat was once owned by a man and a woman, both of whom killed themselves (the woman in the gas oven, the man in the bathroom). It looks as though we might be straying into Gothic territory, where the ghost story and the detective story are joined (as in William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki stories); indeed, the name ‘Northanger’ appears in this story, pointing up the irony of the story’s treatment of ghosts and the supernatural, summoning, as it does, Jane Austen’s parody of Gothic fiction, Northanger Abbey. Carrados sees past (as it were) any idea of a ‘haunting’ and discovers the truth (which I won’t reveal here for fear of a rather colossal spoiler). A sort of ‘locked room’ mystery, but centring cleverly on the issue of a ‘ghostly haunting’ rather than a murder or other crime.
The Eyes of Max Carrados (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural) is a large collection of stories and so great value for money, costing the price of a pint (and providing many more hours of entertainment). The Max Carrados stories aren’t as continually inventive as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and some of them are less gripping and memorable than others, but those who have revisited the adventures of the Baker Street sleuth multiple times and are in search of something new, in a similar line, will find these stories of great interest. The only Max Carrados outing not included here is the novel-length The Bravo of London (1934), which is out of print and available for a king’s ransom online from specialist bookshops.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.